When I head off to do research in a local or regional archive, my work bag is mostly pre-packed and ready to go. Of course I tweak the contents for the specific place I’m visiting and the specific project I’m working on, but having assembled all the basics into a permanent kit makes preparation—and research—easier. This post may also give you some holiday gift ideas for that hardworking researcher on your list.
Here’s what I keep in my archive bag:
- Pads of narrow-lined paper. This is my own preference for note-taking. Obviously you may prefer some other paper, or an electronic device. And some archives are particular about what they allow; for example, some allow only loose sheets of paper, or no folders.
- Mechanical pencils, lots of them. Most archives allow only pencils, no pens, and it’s an excellent habit for an archive user to develop. Mechanical pencils eliminate the need to sharpen.
- Camera and extra batteries. Not all archives allow photography, but many do. Of course many researchers just use a phone instead.
- A stand for propping up documents. Again, not all archives allow you to use a stand. In my experience, the smaller they are, the more flexible they’re likely to be. But a stand can be a real back-saver when you’re taking a lot of photographs. I tried several lightweight plastic bookstands before I found the one that works for me, the Fellowes Booklift Copyholder.
- Clips and lead weights. Mostly for photography, but sometimes helpful just for reading. Bigger archives and libraries supply their own lead weights. Since I work in a lot of smaller collections (including church basements), having my own is essential.
- UV light source. These can reveal faded ink on manuscripts. Like weights, UV light is available in big archives, but in smaller collections it’s very useful to bring your own. They’re readily available online.
- Magnifier. A small, lightweight plastic magnifier. I rarely need this, but for reading handwritten documents it can be helpful.
- Sticky notes. So many uses! But especially when making photocopies.
- Paper clips and a tiny stapler. For organizing photocopies on the spot.
- Coins for parking meters, photocopiers, and lockers. Coin-operated photocopiers are becoming rare, but there are still places where the archivist collects the photocopying fee in cash. Sometimes there will be coin-operated lockers where you need to leave most of your stuff before heading into the reading room.
- Lunch. Obviously this isn’t in my bag in advance, but I almost always pack a quick lunch. If you know me, you know I’m lunch-focused. A great user-friendly archive, in my humble opinion, provides a place where readers can eat their bag lunch. If we’ve traveled to an archive, we need to maximize our archive time that day, so we need a quick lunch and then back to work. I’ve eaten a lot of lunches in my car or on a bench outside. I’ve eaten while standing under an umbrella on the rainy streets of Lincoln, England. I’m grateful the archivists who invite me to eat in the staff lunchrooms or offices.
My other nerdy habit, when I go to a new archive, is to try to remember to make notes on any odd rules, helpful finding aids, location of useful stuff, parking tips, etc. If it’s allowed, taking photos of the reading rooms and key locations can be helpful later on.
Archives all want to protect their collections, and as users we want to help them in this. So if they insist that we can only take in six sheets of paper, stamped in advance by the guard, it’s annoying but we roll our eyes internally and get on with our research. Of course, standards vary. At the other extreme are the archivists who ask you if you mind keeping an eye on the place while they go out to lunch. Or—forever memorable to me—the one who offered me coffee and a donut while I was working on original documents. I accepted with thanks, but I moved to another table to indulge.